Knuckleballs can be hard to hit, but even harder to catch. The great announcer/comedian Bob Uecker, who caught in the majors from 1962-1967, famously detailed his strategy for handling the pitch years ago: "Wait'll it stops rolling, then go to the backstop and pick it up." That was about the best the Red Sox' Ryan Lavarnway could do on Tuesday night, as he tied a longstanding major league record by committing four passed balls in the first inning of Boston's game against the Astros in Minute Maid Park.
Lavarnway was catching 28-year-old rookie knuckleballer Steven Wright, who was making just his fourth major league appearance and his first start. More importantly, Wright was pitching in a domed stadium for the first time in his career. Because there's far less in the way of wind or air currents in domes, knuckleballs move differently than they do outdoors. A veteran practitioner such as R.A. Dickey can take advantage of this; in seven starts under non-retractable roofs since the beginning of 2010, he has a 1.60 ERA. For a less experienced pitcher, it can be an adventure. Lavarnway had caught Wright's knuckler eight previous times according to MLB.com -- a count that either includes minor league and exhibition games or totals the actual number of such pitches he had cleanly received, we're not sure -- but after the game, he told reporters, "That's the most I've ever seen it move."
As you'd expect, that made for a rough first inning. Wright walked Houston leadoff hitter Robbie Grossman to start the home half of the first. Grossman proceeded to steal second and take third on the first passed ball, which tipped off Lavarnway's glove and went back over his head. Wright then hit batter Brandon Barnes, who took second on the next passed ball, which clanked off Lavarnway's glove as Jose Altuve swung and missed, though Grossman held at third. Two pitches later, a knuckler well outside the strike zone against the righty-swinging Altuve tipped off Lavarnway's glove and bounced to the backstop, which allowed Grossman to score and Barnes to take third. Two pitches after that, a sinking knuckler to Jason Castro got away from Lavarnway and allowed Barnes to score as well. After Castro singled, Wright walked Mark Krauss, and the never-ending inning continued as both runners advanced on a wild pitch. Castro scored the Astros' third run on Brett Wallaces' groundout before the inning finally came to a close on Matt Dominguez's flyout. You can see the video of the mess here:
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Such problems happen to the best of knuckleballers. The four passed balls in an inning tied the record set by two catchers as they struggled to control a pair who combined for 1,928 appearances in careers that covered a total of 46 seasons. The first time was on Sept. 10, 1954, when the Giants' Ray Katt couldn't handle Hoyt Wilhelm. The second was on Aug. 22, 1987, when the Rangers' Geno Petralli struggled to control Charlie Hough, who nonetheless completed a three-hitter against the A's.
Wright had no such luck, as Red Sox manager John Farrell pulled him after that nightmare inning. He had managed just 18 strikes out of 38 pitches and failed to throw a single first-pitch strike to any of the seven hitters he faced. The inning set the tone for what turned out to be a three-hour, 54-minute slog in which the two teams combined to score in every inning but the ninth. The Astros ran their lead to 5-0 via a two-run Grossman homer in the second inning, and led 7-3 through four, but the Sox put up a pair of five-run innings in the fifth and sixth, with Lavarnway's two-run double providing the go-ahead run, and the two teams traded blows in the seventh and eighth, with Boston finally prevailing 15-10.
Particularly because it happened for the Red Sox, Lavarnway's night was reminiscent of the April 26, 2006 game where Boston's Josh Bard committed four passed balls during a three-inning stretch while trying to catch Tim Wakefield. Acquired from the Indians in the offseason and anointed the venerable knuckleballer's personal catcher, Bard committed a total of 10 passed balls in five games with Wakefield. Before he could get another crack at trying, he was traded to the Padres so they could reacquire Doug Mirabelli, who had served as Wakefield's personal catcher from 2001-2005 before being dealt to San Diego the previous December. The deal went down on May 1, and Mirabelli famously received a police escort from the tarmac of Boston's Logan Airport to Fenway Park, where he arrived just in time to catch Wakefield's seven innings in a win over the Yankees. Mirabelli hasn't played in the majors since 2007, but don't be surprised if Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington gives him a call.